By Cllr. Tom Anderson, Leader of Wirral’s Conservative Councillors
On Monday, the Council’s budget for 2023/24 was passed. As it has been every year, because the law requires us to.
Unlike central government, councils must ‘balance’ their budget each year and cannot borrow money to finance day to day spending on things like salaries or running costs.
This year, Wirral Council will receive an extra £20 million from the Government to support local services. That’s £6 million more than was expected six months ago and it means the services that some of our most vulnerable residents rely on can continue for another year – whether it’s the playschemes, the remaining libraries and leisure centres.
Of course, we all knew about this extra cash before Monday and so, had they wanted to, Labour could have ended the worries of so many residents who were campaigning to save them and told them weeks ago that they were no longer at risk.
Instead, we had the spectacle of Labour councillors telling residents they were ‘fighting’ for services, while knowing full well that, thanks to extra cash from the Conservative Government, they were not at risk.
The concern we have is not whether we can support the front line services we all depend on, it’s whether the Council’s continuous need to increase Council Tax is because the running costs of the council are not being addressed, or failures being fixed.
Only last month, we learned that one supplier had been paid £200,000 twice. Are there others? At this stage we don’t know. Last year, we learned that almost £50 million had been spent without getting anyone to authorise it. Until financial controls are in place that are transparent and, more important, enforced, we cannot be confident that the extra money the council is asking residents to pay this year won’t be similarly ‘lost’.
That’s why Conservative Councillors voted against that part of the budget proposals. We need to make sure that every pound raised is accounted for and is used to maintain, and improve, frontline services.
In previous years, and especially when Labour had a majority in the Town Hall, we saw money wasted on expensive carpets in the Town Hall, the notorious ‘Downton Abbey style’ staircase and, of course, the millions being loaned at mates rates to other Labour councils.
Other parts of the budget passed without disagreement – proving the parties can work together, when they want to and when they put political games aside. We agreed on the schools budget (up by £21 million) and agreed the budget for the capital programme that will see buildings used by the public improved – such as £500,000 on Moreton’s library.
On top of this, the Council also receives specific grants from the Government to meet national priorities – in the last month alone, Wirral residents will benefit from £6m for the Household Support Fund – helping people with the cost of living. We’ll also have an extra £6.8m to tackle drug and alcohol addiction – two of the biggest causes of crime and family breakdown. And in December, we were given another £1.1m to keep people off the streets and get them into accommodation.
Once all the various parts of the budget had been voted on, councillors then had to set a level of Council Tax that reflected the earlier votes, and also took into account the amount needed by the police, the fire and rescue service and the transport authority. Again, Conservative Councillors voted for this – unhappy with the Council Tax rise, of course – but not willing to break the law and push Wirral down the Liverpool road to financial ruin.
Labour, while leading the council, knows that we, and the independent auditors, are watching and, when necessary, calling our Labour’s waste while ensuring the money paid by residents and businesses is used to support council staff as they deliver the services we all rely on.